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In this global society, what parents don't wish they could teach their child another language? But where to start, especially if English is basically the only language the adults speak?
Meet the SayitSees, a typical family. There's Sam, a young boy, his twin younger sisters Itsy and Bitsy, and their mom and dad.
They have similar daily routines that we do - they wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast, brush their teeth, go to school. Except, the SayitSees are blue, and although they have a body, arms, legs, a head, eyes and mouth like humans, their ears are reminiscent of Princess Leia's sausage curl braids in "Star Wars."
The SayitSees are a creation of Sousan Arafeh, an educator who lives in Old Lyme, and her business partner Roynn Lisa Simmons, an Emmy-winning television producer who lives in Middletown. This month the two are launching their first products in a bilingual family language learning program that uses high-tech multimedia programs and tried-and-true materials to make other languages approachable, pronounceable and fun to learn.
The first series is in Spanish and English; the women plan to develop programs in Mandarin Chinese, French and other world languages.
"The SayitSees are a world-traveled family; they love to learn about languages and culture," says Arafeh. "They are very good at language; they are great communicators."
In a series of books, DVDs and web-based materials, the family goes through their daily routines, much like ours. The first unit, or lesson, is "The Best Breakfast - El Mejor Desayuno."
"This is a story about Sam. His mom has promised she would cook the children's favorite breakfasts, each of which is different," Arafeh explains. "The book is full of authentic language - the way a mother and her kids would talk, in both languages."
A companion poster revisits the phrases - Arafeh has this posted in her kitchen and uses it with her fifth-grade son and third-grade daughter. There also are flash cards of the dialogue.
A DVD helps families figure out how to pronounce the words and phrases; a narrator reads the book, in both English and Spanish. There's also a video of a Hispanic mother and young son saying the same phrases in English and Spanish while they prepare and eat breakfast in a real kitchen.
"It's not rocket science," says Arafeh of the dialogue and approach. "It's about listening, imitating - all of those things that kids do really well, and it gives parents the tools to help them."
There's even a catchy tune, written by Arafeh, that repeats several of the phrases in the dialogue. Audio production was done at The Coffee House Recording Studio, owned by Michael Arafeh, her brother, in Middletown. All of the materials are designed to encourage role-playing by family members.
"These materials will give you a number of phrases you can use during your day with your child. Keep listening and using the phrases and don't worry about getting it wrong," she says.
"The important thing is that you and your children are getting the cadence, a feel for the words."
The two women have been working on this venture for several years, in addition to their full-time careers, family and life changes. Arafeh, who has PhDs in curriculum, instruction and education policy and in communications and cultural studies, is an assistant professor in the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies department at Southern Connecticut State University.
Simmons was senior producer of national programs for Connecticut Public Television and started her own television production company, Fingerpost Productions, which she continues while teaching media courses at Middlesex Community College in Middletown.
"It started out with my frustration with my own children. I would hear them coming home from language lessons at school saying individual words - cat, dog, yellow, green - but there's no connectivity," says Arafeh, who admits to having an ear for languages, and started her education career teaching at the Country School and the Hammonasset School in Madison. "I wanted to help families whose parents haven't experienced language in a holistic way."
She approached Simmons with her ideas. Simmons immediately saw the opportunities to create multimedia applications to make learning easier and entertaining. The SayitSees started out as little mice, and after many design meetings, evolved into blue people-like characters. They have special powers, which will be revealed in future units.
"Children and families all over the world want their children to learn different languages, so we wanted to create characters that could go into any culture," says Simmons.
The materials are designed to be just as helpful to Spanish-speakers learning English as they are to English-speakers learning Spanish. That bilingual approach will continue with the other languages, too.
The project has involved several Connecticut educators, communicators and artists. Barbara Haines of Haines Design in Essex designed the SayitSees family members and Steve, her husband, designed the logo. The book design is by Carolyn Hughes of Middletown, and graphic design and video editing have been done by Alan Taylor in Hartford.
The Spanish-speaking mother and son who cook breakfast together are Mara and Amado Pinet, who live in New London. Ann Shapiro, director of Connecticut Storytelling Center at Connecticut College, helped find the actors and lent her kitchen for the video shoot. Grigoria Kapeli of Old Lyme, and Carina Risatti, Westbrook, provided Spanish translation and dialogue review. New London residents Riccardo and Katia Rivera will be the father and young daughter acting in the second video.
Simmons credits retired New London educator Zenni Martinez, who taught English and Spanish-speaking Kindergarteners together, for the inspiration to use games and songs to teach languages to young children.
Arafeh & Simmons, who formed their own company, Technoria, turned to the UConn Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, UConn Intellectual Property and Entrepreneurship Law Clinic and Connecticut Business Incubator, and Gales Ferry Branch of SCORE for business, copyright and legal advice.
"What we're trying to do now is to establish a proof of concept," says Arafeh. "We're making this multi-layered so that it is accessible to kids and parents in different ways. It is fun, it has a lot of pieces that other language programs out there don't have and it works."
"The Best Breaskfast - El Mejor Desayno" is being offered online at sayitsees.com for $25.95 plus shipping. There's a sample of the narrated book online and the website has an option for purchasing and donating kits to libraries or causes.
"We want to get the word out so we'll be sending an email to all of our friends and families, too," says Simmons. The two also are looking for schools and learning group situations to keep testing out their products and ideas.